The Corner

Union of Fear

Both Kevin W. and Tom Rogan have put up excellent pieces arguing why Scottish independence is a bad idea, whether from political or economic calculations. The very latest polls show the referendum is still too close to call, though there are signs that the No vote may be gaining just enough steam, largely from women, to keep the Union intact. From an outsider, non-expert perspective, though, I find fascinating the fact that the heart of the pro-unionist campaign seems to be based on fear and chastisement, most notably coming from the U.K.’s leading politicians.

I certainly haven’t read every anti-independence speech, and both David Cameron and Gordon Brown have made impassioned orations about the “love” between the two nations and the benefits of union. However, what leaps out from every article I’ve read is the relentless focus on the mistake Scots would be making if they voted to split from the U.K. Cameron has repeatedly admonished that “there is no going back” from a vote for independence, as though he were talking to irresponsible schoolchildren. Brown in his lauded speech today said, “The vote tomorrow is whether you want to break and sever every link [with the U.K.].” Former prime minister John Major darkly warned that Scots would become “foreigners overnight” and Tony Blair said it was “incompetency” that Scots would vote to break from the U.K. without knowing what currency they would use. The examples go on and on, but perhaps one of the key reasons for the late surge in support for Yes was the dismal performance of Alastair Darling, Downing Street’s point man for union, who focused solely on the negatives of independence, and not on the positives of union, in his two televised debates against Scottish National Party chief Alex Salmond.

This is not to say by any means that Salmond is any better. If even half of the predictions of the damage that Scotland’s economy and international standing would incur by going it alone are true, then he will go down in history as one of the most irresponsible demagogues that ever maneuvered a people into “international irrelevance,” as Major insultingly put it. In fact, it is hard to discern which is more shocking: the blasé attitude among Cameron and other U.K. leaders that morphed into barely disguised panic in the last few weeks of the campaign, or the utterly unrealistic promises of Salmond that an independent Scotland would reap only unheard-of benefits and see absolutely no dislocation and trouble as an independent state.

Yet campaigns are won through optimism and forward-looking platforms that appeal to ordinary citizens’ hopes and dreams. Just ask Bob Dole, whose 1996 campaign floundered not least because of his promise to take America back to a kinder, gentler time. Except for professional historians like myself, almost no one wants to go back, only forward. Or, of course, ask Barack Obama, whose non-existent record of accomplishments or positions of responsibility hardly weighed against him in his campaign for president. 

From this perspective, I find the British leadership’s approach confusing and, quite frankly, off-putting. As one of those starry-eyed Anglophilic Americans who should nonetheless know better, I’m as pro-union and pro-monarchist (U.K. only, thank you) as they come. Yet even I would find myself probably voting for independence, given the paternalistic hectoring and fear-mongering being directed my way daily by those London toffs. They offer few compelling reasons why Scotland benefits from the union (except for the grubby monetary references Brown made to U.K. pensions), why they are stronger being part of a vibrant society, or how Scotland’s destiny can be fully realized through the benefits of being a core element of a country that still plays a large economic and political role around the world. 

Perhaps this is more obvious to Americans, hopelessly optimistic despite much evidence to the contrary, since only such appeals to our better angels really resonate. Perhaps in the eyes of London politicians, Scotland needs to be reminded of just why it has been subordinated to England for over 300 years, and that a good verbal drubbing is easier to adopt than a genuine discussion of equality. 

It looks like the No votes will have it, just barely, but I won’t be surprised at all if it goes the other way. And then, the ghosts of ruptured nation-states of the past can point their bony fingers at David Cameron and John Major and Gordon Brown, who presumed to tell a people what was best for it, scaring them all the way to independence.

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